Elected to an unprecedented four terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as President of the United States longer than any one man, even in light of the fact that he died just less than three months into his fourth term, in 1945.
Someone else a century earlier, also a legend in her own right, however, figuratively, if not literally, had her beat by four years.
Third President Thomas Jefferson was a widower. His Vice President Aaron Burr was also a widower. His Secretary of State James Madison, however, was married to a woman very much alive. Animated, ebullient, urbane, witty, accessible, engaging, charming, sympathetic, regal, and warm at that.
While Jefferson never officially designated Dolley Madison as his White House hostess, she and her husband were practically family to the President, and actually lived with him in the Presidential Mansion (as it was then commonly called) at the beginning of his first term, in 1801, before they established their own household.
While Jefferson did just fine as a host on his own, gourmand, democrat, wine connoisseur that was he, whenever he had a large contingency of women guests at dinners, he always called on Dolley Madison to serve as his co-host for those evenings.
She did this throughout his two four-year terms, even assuming the primary role of hostess during the two winter social seasons when his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph was visiting.
Starting her husband’s own two-term presidency in 1809 with a big bang – the very first Inaugural Ball, Dolley Madison had not only ample practice as hostess of the presidential mansion but familiarity with the key political figures and social and civic leaders of the fledgling capital city. She might well have earned herself a footnote in history as a chummy hostess with rosy cheeks and an ample bosom.
Then the War of 1812 began, its most dramatic moment occurring when British forces stormed Washington, D.C. and burned federal buildings, including the White House.
Before they got there, however, Dolley Madison committed what would later be seen as a foresighted act of patriotism, ensuring that the large Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington not be allowed to be taken as a prize of war by the British and shown off in London as further humiliation of its upstart former colonies.
Word got out about her bit of bravery. In a day when it was considered almost insulting to mention a woman’s name in print, she was heralded for this act in a poem printed in national newspapers. one line running, “Mistress Dolly! Long live she!” By the time, the Madisons left the presidency in 1817, her legend was already preceding her.
It wasn’t just Jeffersonians who liked her.
Although the Philadelphia editor Joseph Dennie, who went by the pseudonym pf “Oliver Oldschool” was a rabid Federalist who despised everything that Jefferson and his acolytes stood for, including “Mr. Madison’s War” he fell under the magic of Mrs. Madison herself.
Meeting her “on the occasion of a splendid fete, which was given by his excellency M. Daschkoff, the Minister from Russia, in honor of the natal day of his sovereign,” Dennie was impressed by her “cheerfulness” and “intelligence.”
Dennie was the publisher of one of the first national magazines, the Port Folio.
Yet despite his magazine’s rabid anti-Jeffersonian tone (it had been a primary venue for spreading the story of Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings), he was dazzled by Dolley:
“We remarked the ease with which she glided into the stream of conversation and accommodated herself to its endless variety.
In the art of conversation she is said to be distinguished, and it became evident in the course of the evening that the gladness which played in the countenances of those whom she approached was inspired by something more than mere respect.”
Dennie went a step further.
In breaking what was still the propriety of respect for a woman of the elite class, he not only described her in print but he decided to show her to the nation. He had an artist who carved blocks of wood intended to be tabbed in ink and then pressed as an engraving on paper, copying Dolley Madison’s image from an oil portrait. He then mass-produced the woodcut engraving.
And had it bound on top of the other pages of his monthly magazine, right smack on the front cover.
Nothing more solidified the idea that this presidential wife was unlike all other wives – she was a bona fide public figure.
We have no record of just what Dolley Madison thought about being perhaps the first American woman to appear on the cover of a national magazine, let alone the first “President’s Lady” to be so honored.
By her overt words and deeds, however, she did conceive of herself as having an important and public role, considering it one which made the nation as much her constituency as it was her husband’s.
And as for having having her image now spread throughout the country and for all eternity, Dolly Madison may have already been taking care of that on her own.
In old age, while she made sure that everyone would know that “credit is mine” for saving Washington’s painting, she rarely seemed to mention the fact that, before the British could burn the White House and all that was left in it, she also made certain to rescue one other portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
- The Very First Inaugural Ball: Hot for Her, Not for Him (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Always Ghost Haunt The White House (socyberty.com)
- Ballet Theatre Brings War Of 1812 Ballet To Baltimore (eyeonannapolis.net)
- The Masses Crowd Two Centuries of Inaugural Balls (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The First “First Lady” (todayifoundout.com)